NEW ORLEANS – The refined and sophisticated Bud Wilkinson rarely lost his cool in 17 years as the Oklahoma football coach.
Rarely? Try only once.
And the Sugar Bowl made him do it.
“Positively furious,” is how George Lynn Cross put it, and OU's 25-year president ought to know. Cross was privy to Wilkinson's outrage at a spying scandal before the 1950 Sugar Bowl.
It's a tale worth re-telling, and it's not all that far removed from 21st- century sensibilities. The 2013 Sooners arrived in the Big Easy on Friday and start Sugar Bowl practice Saturday at the NFL Saints headquarters in suburban Metairie.
Alabama will work out in the Superdome, where the teams play next Thursday.
Advantage Bama? Not in Bob Stoops' eyes.
“I'm OK with where we're going,” Stoops said.
OU practiced at the Superdome 10 years ago during its prep for the national championship game against LSU. In case no one has figured out by now, New Orleans is an LSU town.
Stoops has no empirical evidence that anyone spied on OU workouts before that Sugar Bowl, or that LSU gleaned information about the Sooners, but Stoops never felt comfortable in the Superdome. It's impossible to secure a building like that.
“Too many eyes,” Stoops said.
Sixty-four years ago, there was no Superdome. But there were coaches committed to secrecy. And ne'er-do-wells committed to espionage.
It all made for grand theater before the first OU-LSU Sugar Bowl.
Wilkinson, in his third season as the Sooner coach, had perhaps his greatest team. The '49ers would finish 11-0 and ranked second nationally, with a bevy of veteran seniors who would go on to shape college football long after their playing days. Darrell Royal, Dee Andros, Jim Owens, Wade Walker.
Wilkinson took his team, just as he had for the Sugar Bowl trip the year before, to Biloxi, Miss. Bowls don't let teams get away with that these days, but those were simpler times.
On Dec. 30, Wilkinson returned to the team hotel from practice and found a message entitled “urgent,” according to Cross' book, Presidents Can't Punt.
Wilkinson called the number, and a man who identified himself as Clarence Johnson said that OU's last two practices had been watched by three men stationed atop a garage within viewing of the practice field. Johnson said the men worked with a camera, binoculars and a large scouting chart. They had pulled a tarp over themselves to remain hidden.
The news angered Wilkinson. “That was the only time I ever saw Bud real angry; his face was white,” said then-Wilkinson assistant Pop Ivy, according to 47 Straight, a book by OU historian Harold Keith.
So Wilkinson put aside his gameplan for a spyplan. He recruited Dr. C.B. McDonald of Oklahoma City, who could best be described as a friend of the program; staff videographer Ned Hockman; Biloxi peace officer John Askin Jr.; Biloxi photographer Bill Dennis; and former Tulane football player John Scafidi.
Wilkinson's detective squad was assigned to case the garage at practice the next day, and sure enough, they accosted a man standing on a ladder, watching over the practice fence, screened from the field with a blanket draped between two garages.
What happened next can best be described as straight out of a “Rockford Files” script.
“When the suspect saw the five people approaching with photographic equipment, he hurriedly got down from the ladder, hid behind the door of one of the garages, indulged briefly in profanity, and threatened to smash the camera if anyone tried to photograph him.
“Scafidi interrupted his discourse by reaching behind the door, pulling him into view, and holding him firmly by the collar. The victim quickly covered his face with a handkerchief, but Dr. McDonald snatched it away so that Dennis could get into action with his camera.
“Moments later the man broke from Scafidi's grasp and ran into a house … the owner of the house granted him sanctuary and threatened to prosecute anyone else who entered his house.”
Dennis' film was developed, a print was displayed at the OU alumni hotel and eventually New Orleans residents identified the spy as Piggy Barnes, a former LSU player then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. OU investigation even revealed that Barnes' sanctuary came from another former Tiger, Elbert Manuel.
The story reached the press, and LSU officials denied knowledge of the spying, even suggesting that someone had perpetrated a hoax to motivate the Sooners.
That night, at the annual Sugar Bowl press party, Wilkinson and LSU athletic director T.P. Heard engaged in some heated debate – man, those sound like fun days – and Wilkinson was further agitated the next day when the New Orleans newspapers treated the whole thing as a joke.
The morning of the game, Wilkinson issued a statement, describing what had happened in Biloxi. He invited Barnes and Manuel to present themselves for identification by the three neutral witnesses from Biloxi. They never did.
Of course, the funny part was that Wilkinson could have invited the LSU coaching staff to practice, for all the good it would do.
LSU was a solid 8-2 team. The Sooners were a squad for the ages, and they won 35-0 to complete a perfect season.
Soon enough, Wilkinson went back to being the scholarly coach in the midst of a 31-game winning streak who would go on to fashion a 47-game winning streak a few years later.
Barnes went on to play two more seasons with the Eagles, coached at Columbia and Arizona State, and eventually went into acting. Known as Walter Barnes, he appeared on Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun-Will Travel, Rawhide, Death Valley Days, The High Chaparral and The Dukes of Hazzard. Barnes was Charlie the bartender in John Wayne's “Rio Bravo.”
Fifty-four years after Barnes was apprehended climbing down from a Biloxi ladder, Stoops felt a little of the same LSU hospitality. Sooners from the 2003 team have talked over the years about the ill treatment they received from LSU fans.
“I think we'll be received maybe through the week a little better than we were at that time,” Stoops said with a grin Friday. “I say that in a positive way. That was a little bit different dynamic that whole experience, and there's no denying it. That's just how it was.”
Nick Saban coached that LSU team 10 years ago. Now he's coaching Alabama and apparently not worried about Superdome security. And Saban worries about security.
Before the 2009 national title game in Pasadena, Calif., Saban rejected a junior college as Bama's practice facility. Instead, Alabama set up shop at a city-owned soccer complex in Costa Mesa, with a temporary fence and netting put up around the field.
Bob Stoops could appreciate such tactics. So could Bud Wilkinson.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.